Coronavirus: what’s the situation in Japan?

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Despite the coronavirus making for fearful headlines, Japan is largely unaffected and daily life is unchanged. From his hometown of Nagoya, our tour leader Andrew Sinclair gives his account.

Glance at any news website today and there’s a strong chance the coronavirus outbreak will be dominating the front page. With the second highest number of patients (at the time of writing) after China, Japan is coming in for a fair share of the attention. The quarantined passengers on board the luxury cruise ship in Yokohama harbour have certainly been a focus of the media.

However, on the ground in Japan the situation is quite different to the news-grabbing headlines we’re so used to seeing.

A single face mask at a street crossing (photos taken just this morning).

Walking around my home city of Nagoya, one would hardly realise that Japan has been in the news so much. The impact on people’s lives is minimal – the pictures of people wearing facemasks might seem disconcerting to folks back home in the UK, what with their medical association, but they’ve been a regular sight for decades in Japan. At this time of year, people typically don one to protect themselves from the usual winter culprits like the flu, cold, and other such minor ailments. In Japan’s conformist society, there’s also a high social pressure to be seen to do ‘the right thing’ and to be socially responsible; my fiancée’s company has ordered that all its employees wear masks for precisely this reason, rather than any serious concerns about infection.


That being said, the coronavirus is making itself felt on the news, with daily reports on the situation in China and the cruise ship in Yokohama. Excluding the cruise ship, though, Japan’s number of infected patients has been relatively low, and there’s an image here that this is currently a China – based problem. The main effect I’ve personally noticed is that face-mask sales have gone up as some unscrupulous individuals seek to take advantage of the public demand. A box of seven masks, usually retailed at around 400 yen, was being sold for 4,000 yen. It’s rather reminiscent of the boom in iodine tablets at the time of the Fukushima disaster, and hopefully will prove to be equally unnecessary.

An empty mask rack

Another effect has been a drop in tourist numbers. Sites that would normally be bustling with Chinese tourists are noticeably quieter, such as Nagoya Castle in my city. Usually there’s a good-sized crowd of tourists at the gates when I cycle to work, but not in recent days. The popular retail shop Don Quijote, a firm favourite with Chinese visitors for its vast array of cheap goods, is much easier to navigate without the usual throngs of shoppers!

Usually busy with Chinese tourists, the entrance to Nagoya Castle is quiet today.

The Japanese hotel and ryokan accommodations that we work with are liable to be affected by the lull in tourism, and this is particularly disappointing during what was thought to be a boom year for Japanese tourism due to the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. It’s too early to tell what effect the coronavirus will have on the Olympics, and so far rumours of them being cancelled are false. Even with the Olympics going ahead, though, tourism is likely to be hit hard and the ever-important cherry blossom season may well see smaller businesses suffering from this.

Ultimately, while the coronavirus is ever-present on the news, the reality on the ground is quite different. Switch off the TV, and you’d not know there was anything going on. Japan is a country with a great reputation for cleanliness and this, coupled with the government’s swift quarantining of the cruise liner, will hopefully do much to deter the spread of the virus. During my daily life, I’m more worried about finding a lunchtime restaurant without a long queue than I am about the coronavirus.


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